Outdated administrative, electoral, and participation structures often limit individuals from fully engaging in local democracy. This project asked residents of Red Wing and Willmar, Minnesota, to recommend local government changes that would reflect their values and aspirations.
Problems and Purpose
Although citizens can often make a big difference in their community through local government, outdated administrative, electoral, and participation structures limit people from fully engaging in the process. At the same time, many communities are experiencing demographic and economic shifts, and need a local government that will reflect their needs, values, and aspirations.
Realizing this opportunity for change, the Jefferson Center partnered with Hamline University and Forgeworks, a digital engagement firm, to conduct the Minnesota Community Assembly Project. Over the course of 8 days, selected community members in Red Wing and Willmar, Minnesota, were asked to study the administrative, electoral, and participatory structures of their local government, and make recommendations for the future.
The major goals of the project were to: empower community members to guide the future of civic engagement; promote active local civic participation; identify the community’s idea of “good government”, and give their local governments a chance to reflect that idea.
Background History and Context
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Organizing, Supporting, and Funding Entities
The Jefferson Center worked with Hamline University and Forgeworks to conduct a Community Assembly in both Red Wing and Willmar, Minnesota. The Joyce Foundation and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation provided funding.
Participant Recruitment and Selection
A randomly selected group of 36 community members in Red Wing and 32 community members in Willmar were selected to participate in each Assembly. Participants were selected in order to represent the demographic makeup of their community in regards to gender, ethnicity, party affiliation, age, education, and annual household income. They were invited to participate through a postcard detailing the event dates, purpose, and payment. Community members were paid $1200 to participate in all 8 days of the assembly.
Methods and Tools Used
The Jefferson Center used a Citizens Jury approach to conduct the assembly, where a group of randomly selected citizens gathers to deliberate on an issue. Over the course of eight days, participants learned about their local government and others around the country from a range of experts, discussed corresponding advantages and disadvantages, identified their values underpinning their view of good local government, and explored and recommended opportunities to ensure their local government reflects these values by creating a final report. Trained moderators from Jefferson Center oversaw the Community Assembly, to ensure the event ran smoothly and everyone’s voice was heard.
What Went On: Process, Interaction, and Participation
On the first weekend, community members participated in a simulation to introduce them to the deliberation process. Next, they watched presentations on the levels of government, and the role and responsibilities of local government. Participants reviewed, discussed, and prioritized eight qualities of good government. These qualities would help the group evaluate their current government structure and processes, as well as assess proposals to strengthen those structures and processes. Participants wrapped up the weekend by examining the current structure of their local government, the electoral process, and public participation process, and identified strengths and challenges of current approaches.
On weekend 2, participants considered four proposals that could change their current electoral process: ranked choice voting, strengthened financial disclosure requirements, direct legislation (initiatives and referendums), and public funding for elections. In Red Wing, community members chose ranked choice voting and strengthened financial disclosure requirements to focus on in weekend 3, based on the impact they thought these proposals could have. Willmar participants chose to focus on at-large vs. ward elections and ranked choice voting. Participants then considered proposals that would change public participation approaches: better public meetings, citizen advisory boards, youth councils, and digital public engagement. In both communities, participants chose better public meetings and digital public engagement to study further.
In the final weekend, participants refined and evaluated their recommendations for the final report and wrote a statement to their community reflecting on their experiences. In both Red Wing and Willmar, digital public engagement and better public meetings were voted the top opportunities to strengthen local government.
Influence, Outcomes, and Effects
The final reports from both communities were presented to their respective City Councils shortly after the Assemblies took place. Since hearing the report, the City of Red Wing invested in MetroQuest, an online engagement tool which citizens can use to make their voice heard on local decisions. The City has also committed to re-designing their website, in order to make city information more accessible.
In Willmar Minnesota, community members presented their top two recommendations, better public meetings and digital engagement to City Council. Council members are taking steps to integrate these recommendations into day-to-day operations.
Erin Buss and Christina Nelson, both community assembly participants, ran for City Council in 2018.
Analysis and Lessons Learned
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